Inherit the Holy Mountain
Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism
Prominently situated close to where I live, on a lofty overlook in rural Tennessee that some regard as a “holy mountain,” stands a library devoid of books and fronted by a large bronze statue of the late Sir John Marks Templeton. Everyone here knows that Templeton was locally born and reared, yet became a globally influential financier. Many of us had long realized, too, that Sir John was eccentric enough to have flirted with self-idolatry by confronting visitors to his Sewanee property with a graven image of himself in business dress, and that he sustained a lifelong passion to discern how truths accessible through religious faith and spirituality might intersect with those gleaned through science. That preoccupation with natural theology, despite Templeton’s political conservatism, also carried environmental implications.
Yet prior to reading Mark Stoll’s Inherit the Mountain, I had no idea that Sir John’s spiritual orientation had been shaped by his upbringing as a Cumberland Presbyterian. Neither did I realize how markedly the adult outlook of countless American environmentalists and activist leaders had been influenced by early exposure to some denominational variant of Presbyterianism, particularly during the Progressive era. Nor the manner or extent to which even lapsed adults with standing as “green” activists had retained politically and socially relevant attitudes they had absorbed as children from whatever faith system they had since abandoned. These are only some of the many surprises I was pleased to discover in Stoll’s richly elaborated, historically expansive project to uncover the religious roots of American environmentalism.
Of course scholarship had already brought to light any number of noteworthy, historically contextualized linkages between religion and environmentalism, both within and beyond the United States. Publications by authors like Catherine Albanese, Roger Gottlieb, Belden Lane, and Roderick Frazier Nash have thus far contributed usefully to such inquiry. What strikes me as most valuable and original about Stoll’s book, though, is its detailed explanation of the ways in which not just “religion,” but certain distinctive shadings of denominational belief and practice, have influenced the public witness of environmental reformers and proto-environmentalists throughout the course of American history. Stoll’s core contribution underscores the unexpected relevance for green social policy of these denominational nuances within Protestant Christianity. Along the way, this book also takes account of comparable influences traced to Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Quakerism, Judaism, African American spirituality, and diverse forms of post-Christian Romantic religion extending from nineteenth-century Transcendentalism to latter-day neopaganism.
The opening chapters of Inherit the Holy Mountain analyze the crucial role played by New England’s inheritance of Reformed religion, as embodied in Congregationalist and Presbyterian ecclesiology, and centered geophysically in the Puritan landscape of the Connecticut Valley. Although this study seems to have appeared too late to build directly on Belden Lane’s splendid reassessment of Calvin’s relevance for ecotheology in Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (Oxford University Press, 2011), it similarly recalls the enduring force of Calvin’s vision of nature as a theatre of divine glory. In early chapters, Stoll discusses the pivotal role of Congregationalists and Huguenot descendants—including George Perkins Marsh, Frederick Law Olmstead, and Gifford Pinchot—in conservation initiatives, agricultural reforms, and the Edenically-inspired formation of new park and forestry policies.
Two later chapters sustain this attention to a Reformed religious heritage by elaborating on “Progressive Presbyterian Conservation” and the “Presbyterians and the Environmental Movement.” Stoll points out how Presbyterian-reared figures such as painter William Keith and writer-activist John Muir “belong to the generation in which Presbyterians replaced Congregationalists as the leading conservationists and transformed conservation, parks, forestry, and agricultural improvement into a national crusade” (139). The roster of mostly-lapsed Presbyterians who played leading roles during and after the Progressive era is amazingly long. Included in that roll call, besides Muir and Pinchot, one may count such prominent personalities as Ed Abbey, David Brower, Rachel Carson, John Denver, John McPhee, and Theodore Roosevelt. I take it that Stoll’s detailed analysis of lapsed but environmentally motivated Presbyterians demonstrates, above all, how they retained in later life something of a Calvinist anthropology set apart from Calvinist theology. With a touch of misanthropy, in other words, they tended to regard humankind as essentially flawed or fallen, in contrast to the loftier, if not divine beauty of the natural world.
Other strains of religious influence on environmental leadership are assessed in chapter 4, which traces the long arc of Emersonian spirituality across artistic and architectural works as well as intellectual history. And elsewhere, especially in the book’s latter sections, Stoll addresses the cultural inheritances associated with Jewish, Roman Catholic, and other faith communities. He points out that Roman Catholicism, for example, though comparatively few of its many descendants have been recognized as national environmental leaders, has nonetheless had a formative influence on the ecojustice movement.
The scope of Stoll’s survey is already so capacious—stretching across more than four centuries worth of ecclesiastical, cultural, and geographic landscapes—that it may be churlish to complain about what is not included here. This provocative study does invite further study, though, in connection with faith or interfaith communities and topics beyond its current purview. Despite the small proportion of practicing Buddhists in the US population, for example, I think it arguable that exponents of this broad tradition such as Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder (known for advancing appreciation of bioregionalism and reinhabitation), and the late Peter Mattheissen (prophet of zoological species depletion in Wildlife in America [Viking Press, 1959], in addition to other seminal writings) have projected an environmental influence beyond their scant numbers. And while Stoll rightly observes that few of America’s leading figures in environmental history after 1900 continued to practice orthodox forms of Christian faith, it strikes me as a noteworthy peculiarity that in our own day the unlapsed, seriously religious disposition of three of the nation’s most iconic environmentalists—Al Gore, Wendell Berry, and Bill McKibben, all of whom Stoll discusses—belies usual suppositions about the steady, inevitable erosion of faith among proponents of green culture.
All in all, Inherit the Holy Mountain admirably fulfills its stated aim of merging “the narratives of American religious and environmental history” (8). In the process, it succeeds as well in explaining what science, landscape painting, and sociopolitical history can contribute to these conjoined narratives. Toward that end, the book interlards its commentary with an unusually welcome array of halftone illustrations, color plates, and appendix charts.
John Gatta is Professor of English at Sweanee University of the South.
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